Dogs have been companions to humans for thousands of years but we did not start officially training them until the early 1900’s. Many consider the father of modern traditional training to be German trainer named Colonel Konrad Most. He authored a book entitled Training Dogs a Manual in 1910. Colonel Most had a military background. He started training dogs while serving as Police Commissioner at the Royal Prussian Police headquarters in 1906. He later trained military dogs in World War I and from 1919 to 1937 he was head of the Canine Research Department of the Army High Command.
Within his book, Colonel Most cautions that as dog trainers we must resist our inclination to view our dogs anthropomorphically (think that our dogs respond emotionally, think or otherwise act like humans). Colonel Most also strongly advocates correction based training methods and that the trainers must be “dominant” over the dogs to ensure compliance with these corrections. This is when we started using choke chains to train dogs.
In 1947 an animal behaviorist Rudolph Schenkel, published a paper “Expressions Studies on Wolves.” Schenkel studied captive wolves in Switzerland’s Zoo Basel in the 1930s and 1940s and wrote the paper attempting to identify a “sociology of the wolf.” Schenkel observed that when a group of wolves were put together in a zoo setting a hierarchy would develop and a head or “Alpha” male and female wolf would take over and dominate the rest of the pack. Throughout the paper, Schenkel drew parallels between wolves and domestic dogs leading to the conclusion that domesticated dogs also require a pack structure with an alpha leading the group.
This research was next picked up by another researcher named L. David Mech who wrote a book in the late 1960s entitled The Wolf: Ecology and Behavior of an Endangered Species. The book was a synthesis of available wolf information at the time and included much of Schenkel’s research and Mech adopted Schenkel’s Alpha wolf terminology in the book. The book was published in 1970 and republished in 1981 selling over 120,000 copies and is generally credited for spreading the theory into widespread use.
However, as time went on, Mech began to distance himself from Schenkel’s work. In the late 1990s after Mech lived with a wild pack of wolves on Ellesmere Island near the North Pole, Mech started to revise his thinking. He observed that most wolf packs are a family group with the parents at the top and the children following their lead. “Rather than viewing a wolf pack as a group of animals organized with a “top dog” that fought its way to the top, or a male-female pair of such aggressive wolves, science has come to understand that most wolf packs are merely family groups formed exactly the same way as human families are formed.” The prior observations by Schenkel simply did not apply to wolves in the wild as the wolves he studied were caged in an artificial setting. Mech published these corrections in 1999, 2000 and again in 2009 noting that the term Alpha Wolf had been slowly disappearing from scientific papers and studies.
Sadly in 2017 many people still believe these old beliefs. Today there are numerous studies that prove correction based training can do more harm than good. There are also many people who still believe the dominance theory and Alpha theory, even though the scientist who originally claimed it found his initial theory to be false. Our world has changed drastically since 1910. We would never go to a doctor who practiced medicine from 1910 and we would not learn from a teacher if they were teaching as if it was 1910, so why do we train dogs like we did in 1910? I understand that change can be hard for people, but it is vital that dog parents and dog trainers keep up with the times. If they don’t they can be doing more harm than good!